White supremacy is alive and well, says Gregory Fortuin, a former Race Relations Conciliator who was born in South Africa during the apartheid era. And it’s not going anywhere until we make structural changes.
I often get asked: “Do you hate white South Africans?” The answer is simple, but you must understand my story.
I was born in Cape Town at the foot of the picturesque Table Mountain, into one of the cruellest systems in the world. Based on the colour of my skin, I was classified a lesser human than white South Africans.
The apartheid system regulated where I could live and go to school, which door I was allowed to use to enter public places, where on the bus or train I could sit, and whether I was allowed on a beach or in a restaurant. Most of the time, the signs to these places read: “Whites only”.
And not only was it illegal for me to have relationships across the colour line, it was also deemed immoral according to the law forbidding such relationships (“The Immorality Act of 1950”).
Mum and Dad were conservative, “God-fearing” parents who would have preferred that I didn’t get involved in politics. When Dad passed away, I was six, and my two brothers were four and seven. Our mother was only 27.
These were the days of no insurance or benefits. So we were raised on my granny’s small holding with eight other families. Mum trained as a nurse and raised us with the practical support of others on the farm.
But, in 1967, our area was declared “white” and 200 families classified as “coloured” were forcibly resettled to the other side of the river. My grandmother died of a broken heart before we were moved.
I despised the evil of white supremacy and joined the fight for a better life for all South Africans.
After the ANC was banned, the United Democratic Front (UDF) became our default vehicle for a non-racial, united South Africa in which segregation would be abolished and our society freed from institutional and systemic racism. In my hometown, I was the co-ordinator for a group which supported those who were detained without trial, and the chairman of the parent-student boycott committee, among other things.
When the insurance company I was working for decided to sell out of South Africa, I was confronted with the stark choice of a transfer to Melbourne or redundancy in Cape Town. I agonised about abdicating the liberation struggle, but my aunt told me: “Gregory, you don’t want your kids growing up with the same resentment you and your brother harbour towards the racist apartheid system.”
So, I moved to Melbourne and, a few years later, I was transferred to Wellington. It was supposed to be a four-year sojourn, but it lasted 10 years.
During that time, apartheid was dismantled and, in 1994, Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa.
In 2001, I headed back to Pretoria to talk with South Africa’s Foreign Affairs about a diplomatic role. And, on the way there, I visited the genocide sites of Rwanda and spoke at a conference on national reconciliation in Kigali. Haunted by the stories of the survivors, I decided to accept the role of Race Relations Conciliator in New Zealand, which I’d been offered before I left the country.
I hadn’t been long in the job when the twin-tower bombings of September 11, 2001, happened. With Mervin Singham, the national director of the Human Rights Commission, I travelled the length and breadth of New Zealand listening to, and documenting, the stories of Muslims being abused and judged guilty by association.
We pay lip service to freedom of religion, speech and association, but only for those who look like us, speak like us, and think like us.
Whakapapa matters. It’s cool to be comfortable in our own skins and celebrate who we are. Black or white, short or tall, eastern or western. My heritage of Southern African, Southern Asian, and Dutch is a gift. But when pride in whakapapa becomes arrogant superiority, the alarm bells start to ring.
On the flip side, being black and having suffered oppression doesn’t give me a free pass. I’m on record condemning the likes of Zuma and Mugabe. I’ve also acknowledged the humility shown by Afrikaner president F W de Klerk in releasing Nelson Mandela and serving as his deputy.
Twenty years ago, as South Africa’s honorary consul general and New Zealand’s Race Relations Commissioner, I was denied access to an exclusive club in Wellington for wearing a zebra shirt and an African jacket. The memories of my past in apartheid South Africa came flooding back.
This year, we’ve seen Māori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi being kicked out of parliament for wearing his hei tiki in place of a tie. And black students here are still having to fight for the right to braid their hair.
It’s clear that, in 2021, white supremacy is still the standard.
Two years ago, I spent a week supporting Muslim leaders and the police in the bowels of Canterbury Hospital following the murder of 51 Muslims, and the maiming and traumatising of hundreds in their sacred places of worship.
“Lone wolf” was the convenient catch-cry then, as if this happened in a vacuum.
The truth is, white supremacy has been on the rise globally and poses the greatest threat to our humanity. Believe me, I’ve lived it. Muslims had pleaded with then prime minister John Key for an audience to express their fears about abuse and attacks, but the bureaucrats kept focusing on the “threats from the dangerous left and people of colour” and ignored the threat of the white racists.
Why didn’t it change when we got a new government? That brings me to the white supremacy culture that still pervades the corridors of power and influence in our society today.
Unlike South Africa, racism has mutated (to use a Covid term) to something far more sophisticated, and we appease our consciences by calling it “unconscious bias”. We don’t have apartheid legislation, but white people are still the ones with the power.
“We are not a racist country,” is the cry we hear whenever we point to evidence that says otherwise. Of course, we don’t have a white knee on George Floyd’s neck. And it’s undeniable that we have made progress.
Yet there isn’t a single CEO in charge of Justice, the Security Intelligence Service or any other key mainstream agency, who isn’t white. Someone who can steer the strategic discussion in a more meaningful direction.
The stuff-up with the 2018 census that resulted in low-value Māori and Pasifika data, and the debacle at Oranga Tamariki, are but two examples of who counts and who doesn’t. Instead of appointing another white CEO from Ireland, the answer is in the community-driven societal foundations inherent in te ao Māori.
Over the years, we progressed from assimilation (obey the white norms) to integration (blending in but knowing your place). Then we entertained “super diversity” (have your cultural days). And now “social cohesion” is all the rage.
However, the ones holding the power and deciding who are included and who are not, are still, in 2021, “all white”.
National MP Hamish Walker was rightly sacked for a major privacy breach, but his leaders remained silent on the disgraceful dog-whistle about the threat posed by returning New Zealand citizens who were heading to the South Island for quarantine — but only if they were from India, Pakistan and Korea. Hamish didn’t have a problem with those returning from the USA and Europe.
It’s okay now to say “Kia ora”. Some in the media have gone even further (big shout out to Stuff for their apology to Māori), but we still don’t have te reo Māori, one of our official languages, taught in all mainstream primary schools.
I mihi to those who are making genuine efforts, but until we make structural change we won’t have real and lasting progress. I know the prime minister is genuine about diversity, inclusion and social cohesion, but keeping the very able Minister for Diversity, Inclusion and Ethnic Communities outside of cabinet conveys a different message.
I’m tired of litigating grievances and advocating for a fairer society. I dream of having more time for my whānau, for my 87-year-old mother, and even driving from Cairo to Cape Town.
Whereas in my moments of outrage against injustice I resented white South Africans, my Christian faith demands that I love all of humanity. There will be no future without forgiveness. I have been set free of vengeance. Or, to quote the Quran 5:8: “Never let hatred of anyone lead you into the sin of deviating from justice.”
I dream of a social justice approach to community relations, a New Zealand where there is no need for Māori, Pacific and other minority advisory boards, and where social cohesion isn’t just talk but written into our DNA.
In that New Zealand — built on a caring kaupapa of inclusion, harmonious diversity, and honouring Te Tiriti — we are all living the dream of equity and equality of opportunity, outcomes, and citizenship.
I will dream on.
Gregory Fortuin is a former Families Commissioner and Race Relations Conciliator. He was the founding chairman of the Youth Suicide Awareness Trust and has been deeply involved in community issues in Porirua, where he has lived since 1991.
In 1997, Gregory was appointed South African Honorary Consul General by Nelson Mandela — he was the first resident South African representative in New Zealand of the new South Africa.
He has served on many boards, and he now chairs Quotable Value NZ Ltd as well as a retirement savings fund for Muslims called Amanah. He is also a director and trustee of the Salvation Army NZ Territorial Governance Board.
Gregory is married to Christine and has three daughters, a son, and eight grandchildren.
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